Rembrandt today is most widely thought of as a great painter, but during his own life he was most well known for his etchings, a new technology at the time, but one which he embraced and became a master of. An air of mystery surrounds his work and the precise techniques he used, homed over thousands of hours of experimentation with different tools and finishes to produce one great art print after another. He varied approaches to inking, wiping, and drypoint to enhance textures and tones, or tried different papers to see how they would absorb the ink, and no etcher since has attained the same level of artistic and technical mastery of the medium.
Much as you would expect of a master painter, Rembrandt also made extensive use of the opportunity to edit and amend his printing plates. There are many examples of a singular artwork going through numerous test pressings, with adjustments made to the plates each time to refine tone, composition, or linework detail. These test pressings would often be sold adding a certain uniqueness to the art prints, and allowing us extensive insight into Rembrandt’s process creating these images. His art prints work is often described as feeling fast and instinctive, though in truth he could spend years working on a single plate, just as with an oil painting.
He approached a wide range of subjects including landscapes, portraits, and figure studies, but making up almost a third of his etched art prints, and seemingly the subject he was most passionate about, are his Bible etchings. He created two great art print series based around the life of Jesus Christ, but here we consider his Biblical etchings as a whole; stretching across his career and inspiring some of the artist’s greatest work.
Rembrandt brought humanity to his Biblical art prints
There’s no doubt that Rembrandt had a deep faith, with a well known story being that when he passed away he owned just one book; a well worn Bible, and his unfinished last painting was of a Biblical scene featuring Christ. The thing that really sets his Bible works apart though, is the humanity; his clear understanding of these characters as people, not to be deified in serene poses of triumph, but represented as true to life human beings with emotions and flaws.
His study of the return of the prodigal son shows a very real scene of father welcoming son home; there are no grand gestures or carefully composed poses, just a father and son embracing as others look on. In Abraham and Isaac we see the complex and painful test of faith across Abraham’s face. Perhaps most apparently the approach came through in Rembrandt’s many studies of Jesus; his early work portraying a more dynamic and dramatic looking man. While earlier works show something much more contemplative; a man simply sharing his thoughts and ideas with other people.
Of course, to a man of faith, these stories are real events and people, and perhaps Rembrandt felt a depiction of truth had far more value than one seeking only to iconise popular moments. With so much other work resting in portraits and studies of people, for Rembrandt to shift that reality of humanity into Biblical art prints gave them a unique atmosphere and validity; this was almost documentary work, not the fictions of others.
An artist who loved art, and the process of creating
Though he owned just one book, Rembrandt did surround himself with art; taking advantage of the lower cost of art prints to enjoy work by other artists like Durer, van Leyden, and Tempesta, which he often looked to for inspiration. In many ways his volume of etchings feel much like a sketchbook for playing around with thoughts and ideas in some different manner to painting, which at the time was still considered a medium of perfect finishes honed over years, rather than something that could also be fast and simple.
Quite how he viewed the print medium we’ll never know, though his phenomenal output inspired artists for centuries to come, all looking to be able to create just one great art print in the same league as Rembrandt.